Basic Doctrine:

** NOTE ** First Nations is the term for Indigenous peoples of the Americas. The term emphasizes the sovereignty and originality of diverse and numerous Indigenous cultures. There are more than 500 Indigenous nations and tribes in the United States alone, with distinctive cultures, languages, histories, and religions. Religious patterns vary tremendously, especially as related to traditional life ways (e.g. wild rice farming along the Great Lakes; nomadic hunting on the central plains; desert mesa top villages and maize farming in the southwest, etc.) and current living situation (e.g. reservation, urban, traditional, assimilated, and blends of these).  Given the great diversity of the sacred ways of First Nations peoples, a basic overview of sacred beliefs and ceremonies of a selected number of First Nations peoples is all that can be attempted here.

“The indigenous peoples of North America perceived themselves as living in a cosmos pervaded by powerful, mysterious spiritual beings and forces that underlay and supported human life. Native Americans believed that in order to survive as individuals and communities, it was necessary to acknowledge these spiritual powers in every aspect of their lives—by addressing the powers in prayer and song, offering them gifts, establishing ritual relationships with them, and passing down knowledge about them to subsequent generations, primarily through myths and legends.”(1)  “Despite the great variety of spiritual ways, there are some themes that are broadly shared among traditional First Nations peoples:

Humans and the many other animal, plant, insect, bird, and spirit beings of earth and sky are relatives. Humans should treat them all with respect.”(4)  The entire created world is, in turn, seen as alive, sentient, and filled with spiritual power, including each human being. The sense of the interrelationship of all of creation of all two-legged, four-legged, winged, and other living, moving things (from fish and rivers to rocks, trees and mountains) may be the most important contribution Indian peoples have made to the science and spirituality of the modern world. The everyday life of the American Indian is thought to have been one closely associated with earth elements – plants, animals, wind, water, weather.  Their reverence for the world of nature dominates their art and folklore, including tales of the creation of the earth and its people.  All things in nature were considered sacred and conservation practices were instinctive to these Native Americans.

“Well-being is nurtured through lifestyles that harmonize with the cycles of human birth through death, and the cycles of moon and sun and seasons. Individuals have their identity within the context of their family, community, and place.”(4)    Native Americans have a sense of holism wherein establishing and maintaining a circle of right relationships between and among humans, as well as between the human and natural worlds, is absolutely critical. What Christian missionaries and others often dismissed as animism or polytheism was actually a way of seeing in the entire world, a wondrous creation in which humanity has a special responsibility to uphold the circle. Christian missionaries often completely missed the sense of a single creating Spirit that permeates most First Nations’ sacred systems. Animals such as the buffalo, which played a central function in the survival of the northern plains peoples, assumed a key role in the spirit world. First Nations peoples prayed to the spirits of these animals for help, even as these animals were killed for human use. Their use was not simply for consumption: they were regarded as an integral part of the kinship of all creation. Prayers of intercession and supplication were not made for the sake of one person alone, but for the entire community. Thus, the spirituality of the community was defined not only by humans, but also by the entire spectrum of nature and reality as it appeared to the indigenous peoples.

“Relating with the land in a sacred way is crucial to health. Each Indigenous tradition includes wisdom about the healing and helping qualities of plants and animals and sacred places and spirits in the area of habitation. In addition, Indigenous cultures include specialists of healing, such as herbalists, midwives, shamans, and many others. Many contemporary Native people blend traditional healing practices with conventional health and social service systems.”(4) Nearly every human act was accompanied by attention to religious details, sometimes out of practiced habit and sometimes with more specific ceremony. In the Northwest, harvesting cedar bark would be accompanied by prayer and ceremony, just as killing a buffalo required ceremonial actions and words dictated by the particularities of tribal nation, language, and culture. Among the Osages the spiritual principle of respect for life dictated that the decision to go to war against another people usually required an eleven-day ceremony allowing time to reconsider one’s decision and to consecrate the lives that might be lost as a result of it. Because to be successful the hunt required acts of violence, it was also considered a type of war. Hence the semiannual community buffalo hunt, functioning on the same general principle of respect for life, also required a ceremony; one that was in all respects nearly identical to the War Ceremony.

“Native Americans lived in a world of spirits who made their presence known primarily through natural phenomena. Most Native Americans believed in a Great Mystery or Great Spirit that under lays the complexity of all existence, as well as in many other spiritual powers that influenced the whole of life.”(1) The identification of places of particular spiritual power points to yet another important aspect of Indian religious traditions: these places are experienced as powerful because they are alive. Not only are they sentient; they are intelligent manifestations of the Sacred Mystery or the Sacred Power. The Sacred Mystery, sometimes translated as “the Great Spirit,” is typically described first of all, as a great unknown. Yet this unknown becomes known as it manifests itself to humans in a particular place, in a particular occurrence, in an astronomical constellation, or in an artifact such as a feather.

“At times of crisis, Native Americans turned to powerful spirits to acknowledge their dependence on these spirits and to seek help. Such crises included drought and disease, the suspicion of witchcraft, and the failure to track and kill game. Each tribal group conceived of the spirit world in its own particular way, and there were variations of belief and ritual practice within each community.”(1)  In a world filled with both helpful and harmful forces, Native Americans tried to locate repositories of spiritual power. Uncanny phenomena such as geysers, trees struck by lightning, and deposits of rare minerals, as well as dangerous locales such as waterfalls and whirlpools, became sites of pilgrimage where indigenous peoples hoped to collect spiritual power. They gathered herbs and pollen, oddly shaped stones, and horns, bones, teeth, feathers, and other body parts of animals and placed them in medicine bundles, collections of objects believed to heal disease and to ward off ghosts, witches, foes, and destructive spirits. Many Native Americans kept these medicine bundles for personal, household, and community protection.

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Book:  Searching For Spiritual Unity…Can There Be Common Ground? Chapter 25 – Native American Church {First Nation} By Robyn E. Lebron